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Volume 3168
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron



“We are servants of Him, your God,” I announced.  “Bow down before us.”

“Servants?”  The captain with the jeweled eyes asked.   “Or messengers?  Which is it?”

“Both,” I replied, with more confidence than I felt.

He wasn’t bowing down.

“Indeed,” he said.  “And what is the message from God, that he sends you to deliver?”

“It is not for such as you to hear,” I answered.

“Ahh,” he chuckled, “not for me?  Or perhaps you simply haven’t had time to make one up?”

Oh, oh, I thought.  This one was smart.

One of the our lights, Vadak Eth’s, had been flashing about, picking out more jewel-eyed men among the soldiers, illuminating numbers and weapons and deployments with what I’d learned to appreciate as the method of a professional soldier.  Now it too shone hard on the captain, recognizing the danger he posed.

The Captain chuckled again.

“The Servants of God,” he said smoothly, “come among us to badger lowly mollusk farmers.   How remarkable.”

He stepped forward.  He hesitated then, in the glare of our torches, but shook his head.  Could he actually see the light, I wondered?  But he gave no sign.

“You are strange creatures, I can hear it in the sound of your breathing and the way of your movement, in the smell of you and the timber of your voices.   I will credit that you are not demons,” he replied, “only the foolish and superstitious believe in such things.”

This was no soldier I thought.  This was something much worse.  This was a policeman.  Soldiers were in the habit of doing what they were told.  Policemen were in the habit of not believing what they were told.

“But Servants of God?”

Now, he hesitated fully.   He shook his head while we held the light on him and continued with less confidence.  Despite his jeweled eyes, he did not seem aware of the light, but something was affecting him.  He seemed uncertain.

“I have a talent for smelling lies,” he said, “and I smell them now.   Whatever you are.”

He put his hands to his head, as if trying to feel something.

“You are liars and... and...  ahh...”

And then he fell down in a seizure.   Shaking and twitching, his jaw clacking, foam forming a the corners of his mouth.  One of his jewel eyes fell out and rolled towards us, coming to rest at the toe of my boot, as we watched in astonishment.

Still, I knew to seize a moment when it offered itself.

“Thus falls any who blaspheme against the servants of Him, Your God,” I declaimed.

“Let any sighted man who disputes the truth of our divinity step forward,” Vadak Eth announced, “and he too shall suffer the same fate.”

What was he up to?  The torch lights, perhaps, had induced a seizure?  They might do so again?  I bit my lip.  I hoped he was right.  I looked over at Japh Leah, holding the other torch.  He nodded in unspoken agreement.  I repeated Vadak Eth’s announcement, enunnciating carefully for these odd beings.

Another Jewel Eyed man stepped forward, this one older and heavier.  A ranking officer, perhaps?  A Colonel?    The gems in his face gleamed and sparkled as the the two torchlight beams focused on his face.  He shook his head, just a little.

“You have offended God,” I told him.

“Wha...  Something is happening,” he said.   “The sight... the sight... it is...”

Like the other, he held his head, shaking it, as if trying to clear it.  I watched, fascinated.

“I see...”  He mumbled.   Then he put his hands over the jewels in unconscious reflex.  But it was too late, the seizure had begun, and he too fell, twitching and frothing at the mouth.

The Captain lay still, recovering.  I could tell his attention seemed to gather, to focus on the twitching man who lay a few feet from him.

So, I thought, we could make them fall down for a few minutes, if we kept the torchlights shining in their face for several seconds.   Given that there were perhaps a hundred of them, that didn’t seem all that helpful.

“They bear Holy Metal,” one of the Mollusk farmers called.

“Is that true?” another Jewel Eyed man asked.  This one seemed younger, more slender.  A Junior officer.

“Come forward and taste it,” Aspar Aguus announced, stepping towards the man and extending his blade.

The young jewel-eyed man seemed to follow Aguus footsteps, their hearing was acute indeed.  He put his hand out, fingertips waving until they touched the sword, tracing its length.  Then, as we stared, he did something that astonished and repulsed me.  He stuck his tongue out, and it was a long tongue, drawing it along the blade until we saw drops of blood falling.  Aguus eyes widened, and he drew in breath to signify horror.  But his sword did not waver.

The officer stepped back and licked his lips.

“It is the Holy Metal of God,” he announced, kneeling.  “They are as they say.”

“The God demands you kneel,” I proclaimed.  “Kneel or suffer his wrath!”

I was gratified to see them, first in ones and twos, and then in numbers, until the multitude of them knelt.  I picked up the dislodged jewel and walked over to the Captain, crouching down on as he struggled on all fours.  I spit on it, to wash it, and held his face in one hand, slipping the gem into the empty socket.

“The God does not lie,” I told him gently, “do you see now, sighted man?  Do you believe?”

Foam still clung to the corners of his lips, visibly weak, but he shook his head in acknowledgment.

“I believe,” he said, “this is beyond me, beyond us.  We must go to the High Jewelers.”

Typical policeman, I sighed.  Passing the buck up.  Now the High Jewelers, who from the sounds of it must serve as Priests or Kings in this strange underworld.   Of course they’d have to take it upstairs, rather than getting down to the proper business of bowing and worshipping and giving me foot massages.

Why couldn’t anything ever be simple?

We were led down, deep into the well, into caverns.  The beams of the torches played across astonishing sights, great hidden chambers, stalactites and stalagmites carved to wondrous beauty, crystals and gems adorning every surface.  A city without roofs or windows.

We could only stare at each other, watching the beams, pointing things out and mouthing our astonishment.   We came to what appeared to be a road, giant mollusks moving smoothly back and forth.  We stepped upon the leathery back of one, moving to the center, and stood, as if on a carpet as we moved swiftly along the roadway, with only a breeze to let us know we were in motion.

What had those first group been.  Lowly Mollusk farmers?

These people, I realized with a shock, were cousins to me.  Closer cousins than the Red Men who parodied human form, or the Orgus or green giants.  They were the descendants of the Orovars of Mant.

 Mant had been abandoned, I thought.  But some must not have left.  The stubborn and foolish, hanging on, waiting for prosperity to come back.  Diehard miners and prospectors.  Perhaps a few stone cutters and jewelers, willing to pick over the leavings.  Engineers for the Gravity Well?

They would have had water of course.  But the countryside was barren, even eating spiderlings, there was little to have sustained any number.  They must have learned to eat mollusks, and from thence, to cultivate them like farmers, and given that we were riding on a colossal specimen, they must have developed all sorts of uses.

But with food, water, and the gems they sought all deep underground, what reason to come up to the surface.  Somewhere along, they began to live permanently deep beneath the surface, and in this lightless world, their eyes had atrophied, as I’d heard had happened with cave dwelling insects and lizard.

There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask.  But playing the part of a Servant of God, there was little I could get away.

“God is pleased,” I said finally.

“How so?”

“With this,” I swept my arm around, useless gesture, he could not see, “with this place. It is the work of many lifetimes.  It is a place of beauty and industry.”

Hopefully, if I flattered them, they would grow boastful and tell me something of the history or accomplishments of this place.  I was not thrilled to be meeting the High Jewelers, whoever they were, without having any idea what sort of lies to tell.

“I didn’t understand half of what you said,” the Captain replied.   “I have not heard some of your words before.  And the way you say them is strange and muddy.”

“It is the speech of God,” I replied gracefully.  “He is pleased with the city you have built.”

“Ahh,” he said, some hint of civic pride creeping into his voice.  “Mant is not the largest or the most powerful of the four towns, but I have always believed it is the best.  We are the oldest.  Here the first Jeweler carved the first eye from the hardest rock.  Here the great mollusks were tamed.   Here are three of the great Holy Machines.”

Four cities such as this?  I was astonished.  This one alone, I judged, to be almost the size of one of Az-Lium’s districts.

I was suddenly intimidated.  It was one thing to run rings around untutored, barely literate barbarians.  Barely literate?  Ha.  Barely human was more like it.  But this, this was a city, a society, a culture.  There would be orders and functionaries, bureaucrats, politicians, of which I knew almost nothing.  There was no way to manage this, these people would see through my bluff...  In a manner of speaking.

“Only three?”  I dared to ask.  What were Holy Machines?

“One to each of the other towns,” he said.  “I have touched each one myself, made the round of the pilgrimages.”

“Blessings upon you,” I said, and patted his head.  I shrugged helplessly at the others.

“Are we going to the Holy Machines now?”

“No,” he said, “we are traveling to the High Jewelers.”

No, I thought.  Too fast, I needed time to think.

“Take us to the Holy Machines,” I ordered, “and clear them, bring the High Jewelers to us there.”

He seemed uncertain.

“The God commands,” I said.

That was sufficient.  The Captain gave commands to the Mollusk driver, and the strange creature shifted, taking a new path.   As it gathered speed, the torch’s light fell upon what appeared to be a market, or perhaps a festival.

For a few seconds, I saw flashes of images of these creatures, buying and selling, displaying strange wares, a thousand moments and encounters flashing by of a sightless world, a world of touch and taste, smell and hearing.   And yet, perhaps because it was strained through the brief images illuminated by the torch, strangely familiar even endearing.  It was as if, despite the strangeness of them, they were the same people as us deep down, with the same loves and desires, the same hungers and urges, and the differences were merely the circumstance of their expression.   I remembered the loving care with which the tomb plates above us had been carved, and knew these were the same people.

Did they have actors?  I wondered.  Were there productions and pageants mounted?  But how, with no one who could see.  Was it all sung and declaimed?  What sort of stories did they tell, down here?   I found I desperately wanted to know, but could not ask.

As we passed the festival, I caught one last flash.  An image of two creatures, a male and a female, walking, their postures full of pride,  a precocious small thing between them, its small hands lifted, fingers entwined with theirs, their child.

Not creatures.   People.

We arrived at the temple of the Holy Machines.

“Apologies, oh Servants of God,” he said.   “It will take some time to clear the temple of Pilgrims, and bring the High Jewelers.”

“As is needed, so be it,” I said with false serenity

Inside, I felt anything but serene.  I felt doom closing in.

My lies had only ever seemed to dig me deeper and deeper.  Well, now I was thousands of feet below the surface, pretending to be a demigod to a strange alien race, waiting to meet a group of priests or nobles who would pierce my deception instantly and I saw no way out.


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